The Coral Island [with Biographical Introduction]

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At a signal from Chamberland, they descend, and the noise of waves and traffic abruptly stops, replaced by the rhythmic whoosh of their own breathing and a distant, staticky crackle—the sound of hundreds of fish feeding along the reef. Working in pairs, the group takes its cue from the swarms of butterflyfish that have again gathered in hopes of a gamete meal. The divers drape nets over the most popular mounds of D.


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Fifteen minutes pass, then One pair of divers points excitedly to the tube at the top of one net: pinkish-gray spheres are floating into the tip. Another pair spots gametes rising out of a net, and then another. As the sun sets and the water starts to darken, the divers cap and detach the collection tubes and gather up the nets, making their way back to shore by the beams of their dive lights. At the surface, the mood is subdued. Maybe the other team got more; maybe there will be more tomorrow evening. The divers argue good-naturedly over which team, and which pair, returned with the most gametes, and when all the tubes are lined up on the lab bench, it turns out that there are more eggs and sperm than the equipment on hand can handle.

Even more important than volume is variety, and the group has managed to collect gametes from a lot of different colonies. The variation among the gametes is obvious, even to the untrained eye; the batches of egg and sperm bundles range in color from purplish-gray to pink to beige. The SECORE researchers and workshop participants, who are crowded into the small lab, are still wet from the dive; some are in their swimsuits, with lingering pressure marks from their masks on their faces.

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But everyone is carefully obeying the laboratory rules: no touching or even leaning over the vials, since sweat and sunscreen can disrupt fertilization. No mosquito repellent anywhere near the lab. The room is closed and muggy—83 degrees Fahrenheit, to be exact, the current surface temperature of the ocean—and as Chamberland uncaps the vials and mixes the bundles into laboratory pitchers filled with seawater, the group is almost reverently quiet. In the pitchers, the bundles are already breaking up, and the sperm and eggs are floating freely.

The SECORE researchers have learned, for instance, to dilute the concentration of sperm in the pitchers so that the resulting larvae have the room—and oxygen—they need to develop. No two people handle coral gametes in exactly the same way. Chamberland stands back from the lab bench, satisfied with her weak lemonade. Over the next few hours, the gametes will combine to form embryos, and overnight, the embryos will develop into larvae.

The spectators wish the gametes luck and adjourn to a late dinner, which they eat at a row of surfside picnic tables and wash down with bottles of Venezuelan pilsner.

Coral-island dictionary definition | coral-island defined

On the balcony above, cleaned and drying collection nets hang over the railing like so many gray ghosts. There, in a quiet channel not far from the dolphin show and the shark tank, SECORE has set up a floating coral nursery, an experimental design that looks something like a very sturdy, highly engineered kiddie pool. If it works, it could eventually eliminate the need for a temperature-controlled laboratory, making assisted recruitment more affordable and accessible for small conservation groups.

Latijnhouwers lies belly down on the dock next to the nursery, hoists up the jug of embryos, and carefully tips it in. The workshop participants, seated on the seawall nearby, applaud, and Latijnhouwers scrambles to her feet with a smile, mockingly acknowledging the cheers.

The morning after the gamete dive, the streets around the CARMABI lab are unexpectedly blocked; hundreds of people are ambling along the main road, merrily throwing colored powder at one another as part of a community charity walk. Latijnhouwers arrives at the lab late, short on sleep, and grumpy about having had to shoulder her way through the crowd.

The larvae in the lab, though, are doing well. This morning, teams of workshop participants are using sheets of plastic cling wrap to skim dead sperm off the surface of the swimming pools. Petersen, then working at the Rotterdam Zoo, initially focused on helping zoos and aquariums boost the genetic diversity of their coral collections, but he soon began to consider how assisted recruitment could be used to restore reefs in the open ocean, on a large scale.

Petersen knew that any such large-scale undertaking was a long way off, not only because of the technical challenges but also because at the time, the notion of active restoration was viewed with suspicion, even hostility, by many conservationists. Today, the conversation is different.

While managers and conservation groups alike continue to manage for resilience, they are seriously considering interventions once considered heretical, from assisted recruitment to the transplantation of corals into new ecosystems to the inoculation of coral polyps with symbiotic algae known to be heat-resistant. In a quieter but perhaps even more significant departure from conservation tradition, SECORE has expanded its focus beyond critically threatened corals, and its researchers are now developing assisted recruitment techniques for a dozen different species, many of them still common.

Coral larvae are, basically, tiny blobs of fat. In some species of coral, polyps produced through internal fertilization are released from their parents with their symbiotic algae already in place; in others, polyps must take up symbionts from the surrounding water. When polyps mature, they can reproduce asexually by dividing or budding off, or they can reproduce sexually by releasing gametes. Before polyps can reproduce, though, they have to make it to adulthood, and even in the most successful SECORE experiments, the survival rate of lab-raised polyps during their first year on the reef is about the same as that of their ocean-raised cousins: 10 percent.

Survival may also have a lot to do with the neighborhood in which coral larvae choose to settle. And they do, in fact, choose. Even though larvae have no arms, legs, or fins, they can swim, using their tiny hairlike cilia; even though they have no brains, eyes, noses, or mouths, they are surprisingly opinionated. Vermeij and his colleagues have found that in the open water, coral larvae swim toward reef sounds; other researchers have discovered that larvae can sense chemical cues and even perceive color, favoring a particular shade of red—a shade that matches the species of rock-hard red algae, known as crustose coralline algae, they most like to settle next to.

Larvae also seem to prefer certain textures, choosing to settle on surfaces that are rough but not too rough. So, like fretful parents of picky children, the SECORE researchers keep presenting their lab-raised larvae with choices, hoping to hit on the ideal menu. Ritson-Williams has found that while larvae like to settle near some species of coralline algae, other species inhibit larval growth.


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Unfortunately, the helpful and unhelpful species of algae look exactly alike—unless you happen to be a coral larva, or a coral scientist with a microscope and a lot of algal expertise. Early SECORE experiments used hand-cut clay tiles as a surface for settlement, but soon found that clay tetrapods gave the larvae additional surfaces on which to settle and a better shot at survival. Chamberland and other SECORE scientists are now working with the design-software company Autodesk to develop 3D-printed settlement tiles in a variety of textures and fantastical shapes.

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